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More Talk about Assistive Technology in Education

 

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Text-to-speech (TTS) is a very popular assistive technology and getting quite well-known in the digital publishing industry. Software which enables a computer or mobile device to read the words on the screen out loud to the user has been around in various iterations for a long time now. This technology is becoming a standard educational tool, popular among students who have difficulties with reading, especially those who struggle with decoding. By being able to hear information instead of having to read text, the student can focus on the meaning of words instead of spending so much of their time and energy trying to sound out words.

It must be noted that while this technology definitely helps some students work around their reading difficulties and access material, it is not a shortcut. This technology does not assist students in developing reading skills.

In recent years there has been a steady increase in the amount of TTS software available on both Android and Apple devices. With the increased and broad acceptance of TTS technology, more attention is being paid to it efficacy. The research is ongoing. Here is a paper on The Effects of Text-to-Speech on Reading Comprehension of Students with Learning Disabilities from 2017, for an example of what is being found.

While the research continues, there are some specific ways to increase good educational results that TTS will work for students. Some of them are simple things that might be overlooked. Ensuring that students find the right TTS voice to suit their personalities can have a big impact on how successful the assistance is. Having a high quality TTS voice that sounds similar to a human voice will improve reading comprehension; the less robotic the better, although with the newer generations of TTS technology this is less of an issue, and gender preference for the voice also can be very important to outcome.

The speed at which the TTS software application is set to present the text is also an important variable to consider. The inclination for students to set the voice to very high speeds in order to get their reading done as quickly as possible is certainly possible, but there appears to be an optimal range for playback rate that gives the best results for comprehension. This has been shown to be between 140-180 words per minute. (Cunningham, 2011).  Software that offers bi-modal reading, as in when the computer highlights the presented word at the same time as it is presented out loud, offers the best comprehension outcome. This feature is available on almost all recent TTS programs.

While some questions arise about the possibility of assistive technology giving an unfair advantage to students who use it, this should not be made an issue. TTS and similar learning aids are meant to level the playing field and give every student equal access to education. All students should get what they need to be successful, rather than ensuring that every student gets the same resources. Without AT, students who have learning or other challenges would be left to work at possibly much lower academic levels than they are capable of, and that would be a waste.